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The Devil'S Coin Toss

Wisdom in being satisfied in having enough

Proverbs 13:11

11 Wealth gained by dishonesty will be diminished,
But he who gathers by labor will increase.

Proverbs 20:21

21 An inheritance gained hastily at the beginning
Will not be blessed at the end.

Proverbs 28:22

22 A man with an evil eye hastens after riches,
And does not consider that poverty will come upon him. 


Author Kurt Vonnegut was fond of telling a story of himself and his friend and fellow author, Joseph Heller. He and Heller, author of the popular satirical novel “Catch-22,” were at a lavish party on Shelter Island, New York. Their host was a hedge fund manager, and Vonnegut ribbed Heller by informing him that the Wall Street billionaire made more money in a single day than Heller’s novel would make over its entire history.

“Yes,” Heller responds, “but I have something he will never have — ENOUGH.”

Vonnegut found Heller’s comment both hilarious and touching. It impressed him so much that he wrote a poem about the exchange that he titled “Joe Heller,” and had it published in the New Yorker Magazine:

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”

–Kurt Vonnegut, “The New Yorker” (2005)

Do you have “enough?” Your knee-jerk reaction is to say “of course.” After all, if you are reading this online, you are in possession of a computer, tablet or smartphone, and fall under the wide swath of westerners who are middle class, if not affluent in your own right.

You may not be a hedge fund manager (if you are, you may wish to call your office, given how the market has been behaving recently), but you likely have a safe home, a vehicle or two to take you on vacation, work, or to the grocery store. Prices are higher at the store these days, and they are puffing air into the bags of potato chips to try and fool you into not noticing that there are less chips inside, than has been in the past.

Still, it is certain that you have “enough” to make sure that your days are reasonably comfortable. Somehow, though, there always seems to be the need for more.

Even though you are surrounded by the prosperity of the early twenty-first century west, you feel you do not have enough. No matter how comfortable your life may be, there will always be someone else who has more–or you will have not yet realized the level of affluence that you feel you always wanted or deserve.

It is here that the devil likes to get you into his grip. He works your emotions, your uncertainties, and feeds on your inmost desires. Unless you are keeping close to Christ in your daily dying to self, your desires will soon have you on a wide and easy way of want–the road that leads to destruction:

15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.–James 1:15 

This warning of James is echoed centuries later by puritan Thomas Brooks:

Adversity hath slain her thousand, but prosperity her ten thousand.–Thomas Brooks, “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices”

This is a reminder that when you live in prosperous times, you can find yourself craving and wanting more in a way that you never did when times were tight or your bank account small. As a result, you may take chances or risks to gain more wealth, and you may even succeed–but it is here that your real troubles will begin. 

Solomon continues his lessons on wealth in Chapter 13 of Proverbs, with an important lesson about this:

11 Wealth gained by dishonesty will be diminished,
But he who gathers by labor will increase.–Proverbs 13:11

The book of proverbs is filled with lessons on the merits of hard work. Here, Solomon is commenting on the nature of gaining wealth over time, through true investments and by virtuous means. You know that there are no “gentlemen smugglers,” and get-rich-quick schemes will only bring quick trouble and you rarely, if ever, get rich. 

And yet, you are often tempted to do just this. You tell yourself that it will work “this time,” and somehow you can always bring to mind a friend (or a neighbor of your cousin’s, brother’s, uncle’s, college roommate) who took a big risk and somehow came out filthy rich. 

Funny how our brains do this to us. We are like Homer Simpson, always thinking that somehow it will work out this time: “After years of disappointment with get rich quick schemes, I know I'm gonna get rich with this scheme. And quick!”

Solomon understands your heart and the words he chooses describe well the problems of seeking to get rich quickly. Some transactions render the word “dishonest” here as “hasty” wealth. Whether through crooked means, a weekend in Vegas, or simply a windfall, the Hebrew is delightfully descriptive. The word מֵהֶ֣בֶל, (“me-he-bel”) is literally “lighter than air” or a “puff of breath.” 

Think about this. When I simply give my two young sons money, they very quickly turn around and spend it: “poof!” its gone. I did the same at their age, and recall my mom describe gift money as “burning a hole in my pocket.” 

My sons are so much more diligent with their cash when they have worked for it. Money earned cutting grass or at a job in town has a much longer life-expectancy in their wallets, than cash that comes out of a birthday card. 

You know this same sensation with your own labors. Solomon understands this, and so you will find parallels to this thought in other proverbs, from an inheritance that goes from windfall to a curse:

21 An inheritance gained hastily at the beginning
Will not be blessed at the end.– Proverbs 20:21

And the ultimate suffering that comes from wealth not truly earned:

22 A man with an evil eye hastens after riches,
And does not consider that poverty will come upon him.– Proverbs 28:22

This last proverb paints a haunting picture of the solution that all too many in our culture will turn to for obtaining quick wealth: going into debt.

When you receive a windfall, you often work to replicate it. You can waste more money, precious time, and even relationships with loved ones, just for a chance at another “big score.” It is one thing to take out a loan for a business, a car, or a home, and another to drive up debt in order to maintain a lifestyle. 

When you cannot afford what you simply must have, you will turn to credit cards and other means to help. This places you in the path of high interest rates, hefty bills, and an oppressive sense that you owe, and will soon struggle to repay.

In this modern culture, as inflation rises and costs go up, our desires are not abating. More and more people, young and old, are finding themselves slaves to debt–just to support a lifestyle. 

One of the reasons Solomon is urging a long game when it comes to earning and saving, is that it allows your character to develop along with your wealth. Simply put, hastily-won wealth will bring trouble, because you may simply not be able to handle it in your heart. 

Jesus knows this, and when He is confronted by the rich young ruler, he sees a man with this same heart. This man’s problem is not that he had money and means, but that it is the focus of his heart. A short time before, Jesus had taught a simple lesson to His disciples:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?–Matthew 16:24-26

Does your pursuit of an easy gain in this world threaten to cost you your soul? Do you flirt with debt, or struggle to find that easy path to wealth? Do you find that you cannot stop spending because your wife, your children, or your own personal goals will be frustrated? You may be betting more than next month’s paycheck on each toss of the coin.

The movie and novel “No Country for Old Men” has a chilling scene. Here, a cold-hearted assassin makes a routine stop for gas, and the over-inquisitive filling station attendant finds himself unknowingly in danger for his life. The assassin, an enigmatic character named “Anton Chigurh,” [pronounced “chig-gur”] asks the simple old gentleman:  


“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” 

The innocent proprietor is bewildered at the question, and becomes slowly more unnerved as the strange man eyes him with cold hostility. As he fumbles for an answer, the killer toys with him. Chigurh takes a quarter from his pocket: 

Anton Chigurh: Call it.

Gas Station Proprietor: Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here.

Chigurh: You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.

Proprietor: I didn't put nothin' up.

Chigurh: Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life, you just didn't know it. 

Chigurh, [played brilliantly in the movie by Spanish actor Javier Bardem], is the very face of death. The odd hairdo, the foreign clothes, the piercing gaze, and cold eyes–he has been likened to the devil, and is one of the all-time most menacing villains of book and film. Using his time-tested means to claim a victim–a game of chance–he closes in for the kill:

Proprietor: Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Chigurh: Everything. 

Proprietor: How’s that?

Chigurh: You stand to win everything. Call it.

Proprietor: Alright. Heads then.

[Chigurh removes his hand, revealing the coin is indeed heads] 

Chigurh: Well done. 

The gas station owner has played a game of chance with death and has won this round. At most, he is suitably creeped out, but seems to little know how close he has come to destruction.  

Games of chance, making too much of windfalls, or longing for a quick fix to problems that may simply take time and faith to resolve, will land you in a similar coin toss with the devil. Whether you win or lose, he will get a tighter grip on your heart, as C.S. Lewis explains in “the Screwtape Letters:”

Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.–C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

Does this world’s prosperity live in your heart, or the One who gives it to you? Is Jesus truly your “All in All,” as the hymn goes, or do you just hold out for the blessings? Make sure your soul is secure and satisfied in Him, or you may lose it all in the next coin toss for easy wealth. 



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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